Hi I’m Josh Hawkins, this is Episode 144 of Opening Up the Gospels. In the past ten episodes, we’ve looked at a span of perhaps 8 or 9 hours of the events of Jesus’ life leading up to His actual crucifixion on a Friday morning in April of 29AD, spanning His arrest in Gethsemane to His sentencing before Pilate. We’ve witnessed some absolutely horrific moments, including repeated beating and mocking of the first sinless man since Adam as well was devastating statements from the Jews about where their true allegiance and loyalty was. Over the next several episodes, I’m mainly just going to narrate the holy story of the crucifixion from the Gospels, while only looking at a few details that can give us confidence in the historicity of the event as well as clarity on how things transpired. If you remember all the way back to the very first episode in this series, Episode 1, one of my goals was to help you understand the cycle of how growing in the knowledge of Jesus leads to an overflowing heart, which in turn gives us a desire for more knowledge of Him. A lot of ink has been spilled about the cross of Jesus, and I don’t intend to recount volumes and volumes of reflection in just a few short episodes. But my prayer is that the Lord would take what I do talk about and give you even more confidence in what He has done and cause your heart to overflow with even more affection and allegiance toward Him.
I ended the last episode by looking at John 19 and Pilate’s yielding to the crowd’s demands for Jesus to be crucified. Remember, John was likely present for the proceedings, and fills in some detail that the other synoptic Gospels leave out. We saw from John 19 that after He was beaten, the bloody Jesus, clothed in a purple robe and laden with a crown of thorns, was brought out before the crowd. When the people were further enraged and it seemed like a riot was beginning, Pilate sat on the judgment seat and said “shall I crucify your king?” The Jewish authorities respond and say “we have no king but Caesar”, and it was from that point that Pilate yielded and delivered Jesus to be killed. He was taken back into the Praetorium, beaten again, and then led out to be crucified. Let’s pick up the story today from Mark 15:
"And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him."
(Mark 15:20 ESV)
So let’s talk about a couple of details here. First, the cross itself. Jesus would have been led out of the Praetorium, carrying the wooden beam that would be the instrument of His death. Artists, painters, and filmmakers alike have typically rendered Jesus caring the two-pieced cross already assembled, with the longer end dragging behind Him as He walked through the streets of Jerusalem. If Jesus did in fact bear both pieces of the cross, they would not have been attached to one another. And He would have been in absolutely no condition to carry two separate pieces at the same time. Additionally, historians and commentators have noted that the vertical post would typically have already been prepared at the crucifixion site, and the horizontal cross-piece would be slotted in when the criminal had arrived with it. For these couple of reasons it seems fairly improbable to me that Jesus carried both pieces of the cross either assembled or separately. Now Luke 23:32 tells us that two other criminals were being led away to be put to death with Jesus. Four Roman soldiers would have traveled with each of the condemned, and the whole company would have been presided over by a Roman centurion. It doesn’t seem like the Jewish authorities were part of this proceeding. I’ll talk more about that in a moment.
And second, let’s talk about the route Jesus may have taken. Typical Roman practice was to lead the prisoner through the longest possible route to subject them to as much shame and mocking as possible from spectators along the way. But as we’ve seen already, the crucifixion of Jesus was by no means a “normal” or ordinary one. Recall again the crowds in Jerusalem for the Passover feast, and remember their sentiment toward Jesus. For the group that had come in from out of town, their attitude was largely positive as ones who had known Jesus’ fame from Galilee. Also, recall that what essentially was happening was a judicial murder by the Jewish authorities. The lack of legality, the haste in which the events were taking place, and the majority of the people having positive feelings toward Jesus would ensure that the Romans would have taken Jesus on as short a route as possible to the crucifixion site. Now where was the site? Let’s take a look at a map. Matthew, Mark, and John say Jesus was crucified at a place called “Golgotha”, which means “place of a skull”. So many throughout history have attempted to locate this site, but it’s likely to be in the dirt somewhere underneath the city of Jerusalem as it stands today. We do know however it was outside of the city walls as they stood at the time, perhaps around here, just beyond the northern part of the second wall. The traditional site is here, where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in Jerusalem. So, I think we can be confident of the general route Jesus would have taken - perhaps something like this, from the Praetorium to Golgotha through the city and out the gate. This would have been a formidable distance for Jesus in His wretched condition. And when He could simply go no further and His strength was completely depleted, Mark tells us that the Romans compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry His cross. Let’s read a little bit more from Mark 15:
"And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross."
(Mark 15:21 ESV)
Mark tells us that a “passerby” named Simon was compelled by the Romans to carry Jesus’ cross. I don’t think the soldiers were somehow now sympathetic of Jesus due to His lack of strength. I think the reason once again was primarily to expedite the proceedings. This man Simon, was likely one of the Cyrenian Jews who had settled in Jerusalem and was simply on his way back into town. Now it was a common custom in the ancient world for soldiers of an occupying power to enlist local citizens or their livestock into carrying their baggage for them, and this is exactly what happened in this instance. And this is so interesting - Simon of Cyrene is mentioned in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It’s very rare in the Gospels for someone outside of the Twelve to be mentioned so consistently - even someone important like Mary of Bethany is only mentioned in John’s Gospel. Additionally, Mark tells us that Simon of Cyrene was “the father of Alexander and Rufus”. It makes little sense to mention this fact, unless Alexander and Rufus and perhaps even Simon himself were members of the early Christian community and were people that readers of Mark’s Gospel would know already. It seems likely that they had learned of what their father did for Jesus and had come to faith in Christ because of it. Wow! Check out this quote from Richard Bauckham:
The reference to Alexander and Rufus certainly does presuppose that Mark expected many of his readers to know them, in person or by reputation, as almost all commentators have agreed, but this cannot in itself explain why they are named. There does not seem to be a good reason available other than that Mark is appealing to Simon’s eyewitness testimony, known in the early Christian movement not from his own firsthand account but through his sons. Perhaps Simon himself did not, like his sons, join the movement, or perhaps he died in the early years, while his sons remained well-known figures, telling their father’s story of the crucifixion of Jesus.
-Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p. 52
Luke’s Gospel gives us the most amount of detail for these moments of Jesus’ life, and Bauckham and others would argue that Luke obtained his testimony perhaps from Simon or Alexander or Rufus themselves. As we’ll see in the next episode, Luke narrates the story of a multitude of weeping women along Jesus’ path to Golgotha as well as some significant words Jesus utters along the way. But as I close this episode, I want to read an amazing quote from Frederic Farrar where he describes what we’ve been looking at today.
The cross was not, and could not have been, the massive and lofty structure with which such myriads of pictures have made us familiar. Crucifixion was among the Romans a very common punishment, and it is clear that they would not waste any trouble in constructing the instrument of shame and torture. It would undoubtedly be made of the very commonest wood that came to hand, perhaps olive or sycamore, and knocked together in the very rudest fashion. Still, to support the body of a man, a cross would require to be of a certain size and weight; and to one enfeebled by the horrible severity of the previous scourging, the carrying of such a burden would be an additional misery. But Jesus was enfeebled not only by this cruelty, but by previous days of violent struggle and agitation, by an evening of deep and overwhelming emotion, by a night of sleepless anxiety and suffering, by the mental agony of the garden, by three trials and three sentences of death before the Jews, by the long and exhausting scenes in the Prætorium, by the examination before Herod, and by the brutal and painful derisions which He had undergone, first at the hands of the Sanhedrin and their servants, then from Herod’s body-guard, and lastly from the Roman cohort. All these, superadded to the sickening lacerations of the scourging, had utterly broken down His physical strength. His tottering footsteps, if not His actual falls under that fearful load, made it evident that He lacked the physical strength to carry it from the Prætorium to Golgotha. Even if they did not pity His feebleness, the Roman soldiers would naturally object to the consequent hindrance and delay. But they found an easy method to solve the difficulty. They had not proceeded farther than the city gate, when they met a man coming from the country, who was known to the early Christians as “Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus;” and perhaps, on some hint from the accompanying Jews that Simon sympathised with the teaching of the Sufferer, they impressed him without the least scruple into their odious service.
Farrar, F. W. (1874). The life of Christ (Vol. 2, pp. 393–395). New York: Cassell, Petter & Galpin.
Let these words aid your meditation on this scene. There’s so much to ponder and so many ways the Holy Spirit wants to teach us and strengthen our faith as we behold Jesus more clearly. Until next time, be sure to check out any of the past episodes you may have missed in this series on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. God bless.